A tricycle-driver called Fred Bucal says goodbye to his wife and children and leaves for work. Several witnesses see uniformed Philippine air-force personnel arrest Bucal and force him inside a vehicle at a government checkpoint. This is the last his family has heard of him. The air force denies any knowledge of Bucal’s whereabouts; police will not investigate; and the government has done nothing to call these bodies to account.
This took place in Batangas, a province in the southwest of Luzon island, on the morning of 10 November 2010. The new president of the Philippines, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, had come to office just over four months before with a pledge to introduce big changes that would help protect people’s rights. The fate of Fred Bucal - and it is but one of many such incidents - is a signal of how far the state has to go in fulfilling this aim.
A year after Aquino’s inauguration on 30 June 2011, the killings and disappearances of Filipino citizens continue; the military denies abuses in the face of incontrovertible evidence; and the government still relies for security on paramilitary forces, often misused as the private armies of powerful politicians and other power-brokers. These forces, poorly trained and badly supervised, have long been deployed in brutal actions against communist and Islamist armed groups and in extra-judicial killings.
The justice deficit
The president’s own background informed his promise of progress on these issues. His father is the national hero Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, who was assassinated in August 1983 in the moment of returning from exile to a country still ruled by the authoritarian Ferdinand Marcos. The killing helped to spark the momentous “people power” revolution that helped bring Ninoy’s widow, Cory Aquino, to the presidency. Noynoy Aquino became a senator, and spoke to colleagues there in August 2007 about that formative event and the government’s responsibility to end such vicious abuses.
“[My father’s life] was the highest possible price”, Noynoy said. “It is now up to us to make the institutions of democracy work for our citizens, so that never again should any person’s life be sacrificed in the name of his beliefs.” Again, in his inaugural address as president he publicly instructed his justice secretary, Leila de Lima, to “begin the process of providing true and complete justice for all.”
This makes the experience of the past twelve months all the more disappointing. Human Rights Watch has found strong evidence of military involvement in several killings and enforced disappearances in this period; most of the victims have been leftist activists whom the military perceives as supporters of the communist New People’s Army.
This is a pattern that has endured since the Marcos era, in part because no government has forced the issue with the military. In the first year of Benigno Aquino’s presidency, the justice system has not held a single person accountable for a political murder, and the president himself has done little to address the underlying causes of abuse by the security forces.
There are many obstacles to accountability. When evidence leads to the military it any police investigation tends to stall, and in “disappearance” cases not even to begin. Witness protection remains weak; a witness who had agreed to testify in the Fred Bucal case now refuses, saying she is afraid for her life after soldiers threatened her. When a landmark case does go to a higher level - as when a supreme-court decision and a national report by the Commission on Human Rights named soldiers and military officers behind the enforced disappearance in 2006-07 of four leftist activists (Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeño, Manuel Merino, and Jonas Burgos) - the government has brought no charges.
The second year
Much could and should be done. The president could appeal to members of the armed forces who have witnessed these killings to come forward, and protect anyone who does so. He could order the military to admit its responsibility for illegal acts, and the latter should - like any professional military - investigate all credible allegations of abuses, and discipline or prosecute those responsible.
Aquino could also craft a staged approach for dismantling all paramilitary militias, and meet security needs by enhancing and professionalising the military and reserve forces. Such a strategy would spell the end of incidents like the Maguindanao massacre in November 2009, when fifty-eight people were killed by a private army consisting of government-endorsed paramilitary-force members, police officers and soldiers. Members of the local ruling family, the Ampatuans, are on trial over the murders, but more than half of the 195 accused remain at large.
In addition, the international donors committed to human rights - particularly the European Union, which has invested €3.9 million ($5.6m) in a project to address extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances in the Philippines - could exert public pressure Aquino to take the above steps.
Benigno Aquino’s administration regularly responds to criticism of government inaction on violent military abuses by referring to the experience of his father. In his speech to the senate in 2007, he quoted a personal letter from Ninoy: “The ball is now in our hands.” The second year of his presidency is a good time to begin living up to that assumption of responsibility.